IOWA CITY — Ohio State is tied for first place in the Big Ten Conference, which surprises a lot of people. Fran McCaffery isn’t necessarily one of them.
The Iowa Hawkeyes head coach admires Buckeyes counterpart Chris Holtmann, who replaced Thad Matta this past June. That’s not exactly great timing for a coaching replacement.
But Holtmann, hired away from Butler, knows what he’s doing. And then there’s the player OSU didn’t have most of last season.
“Obviously (Holtmann) is a candidate for not only coach of the year in our league, but maybe the national coach of the year,” McCaffery said Friday. “But I do think you have to remember this: Keita Bates-Diop didn’t play last year. Had he played, they wouldn’t have won 17 games, they probably would have won 24 games. It would have been a completely different situation over there.
“So I think the people that you’re talking about analyzing it missed. You forget how good that kid is. If you have the player of the year, you’re going to be at the top of the league, and that’s where they are.”
Bates-Diop, a 6-foot-7 junior forward, redshirted last season after suffering a fracture in his leg nine games in. He leads the Big Ten in scoring (20.2 points per game), is third in rebounding in 2017-18 and went off for 27 and 13 as Ohio State beat Iowa in early January.
The return matchup is Saturday afternoon at 5:07 (Big Ten Network) at OSU’s Value City Arena. The Hawkeyes cannot see a Bates-Diop repeat if they want a shot at an upset.
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“You’ve got to do a lot of things (defensively),” McCaffery said. “You’ve obviously got to pay attention to wherever he is. You want to try and limit his touches as best you can. But he’s such a good ballhandler, it doesn’t matter where he catches it. Some guys, you’ll let them catch it in certain spots because they’re not very effective (there). It doesn’t matter where he catches it. He’s eventually going to get where he wants to get. And he’s not selfish. He can shoot 3s, he’s got an in-between game, he shoots floaters, finishes with either hand and makes plays off the dribble for other people. That’s why he’s getting the accolades he’s gotten so far, and well deserved.”
Ohio State (21-5, 12-1) earned a share of first place by winning Wednesday night at Purdue on a last-second Bates-Diop putback. The 14th-ranked Buckeyes have won 11 of 12 games and 15 of 17.
Iowa (12-14, 3-10) gave No. 4 Michigan State a tussle Tuesday night before falling, 96-93. Tyler Cook had a team-high 26 points.
The 6-foot-9 sophomore forward has scored at least 17 points in each of his last five games, bumping his season average to 15.7, which is 11th in the Big Ten.
“I’ve been really impressed with him,” McCaffery said. “He’s a thinker, he’s a worker. He knows he’s good, he wants to be great, and he’s making progress to get to that point. What you are seeing with him is a more versatile player at both ends.”
McCaffery said point guard Jordan Bohannon is returning to full health after dealing with a virus that made him questionable to play against Michigan State. Bohannon toughed it out and had 17 points and six assists.
Guard Brady Ellingson and forward Ryan Kriener also returned to availability after dealing with concussions. McCaffery said his son, Connor, still has not been cleared to return to play after a bout with mononucleosis and having his tonsils removed.
He said no decision has been made on whether Connor McCaffery will end up redshirting.
“We’ll just wait on that,” Coach McCaffery said.
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